Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
After a hilarious first act (actually act one and act two, scene one of the original), the second half takes a decidedly more serious turn, containing the real meat of the play. Many in the audience seemed to be more at sea with this part, and even though I wished for the full text, I think trimming may be a wise decision for audience comfort. The basic premise is that the people of a small French town are turning into rhinoceroses, some with intent and some by force of the crowd. Only Berenger manages to resist, standing proudly at the end refusing to join the rest. Ionesco uses turning into rhinos as a metaphor for what he lived through in Nazi-controlled Eastern Europe. Galati shows us that this is a timeless issue, based on what we are seeing in the political arena today.
David Breitbarth continues to dazzle as an actor of unlimited talents. As Berenger, he brings a comedic flair, deeper than what I have seen from him before, but also underlying it with philosophic understanding. Matt De Caro surprises as Gene (Jean in the original), a part famously played on stage and screen by Zero Mostel. Even after his smashingly successful turns last year as LBJ in The Great Society and Oscar in The Little Foxes, nothing prepared me for his comedic/absurdist turn. Matt Mueller turns in another outstanding performance as Dudard. In his one important scene his character presents the emotionalism of the change from person to rhinoceros.
Matt McGee threatens to steal the entire show, opening both acts as the cafe owner (in drag) singing "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," first in French, then in an English translation. He also plays newspaper owner Mr. Papillon. Laura Rook turns in another ingenue performance (after Viola in Shakespeare in Love) as Daisy, Berenger's love interest. Two cameos complete the speaking cast, Brandon Dahlquist as Botard, editor of the newspaper, and, in an extreme example of luxury casting, Peggy Roeder as Mrs. Boeuf, a role that is unfortunately cut to the bare bones along with the character of her husband. Several Asolo Conservatory students appear as townspeople.
This terrific production of Rhinoceros rests on the shoulders of director Frank Galati. His ability to sense just how much of the absurdism the Sarasota audience is going to be able to take is spot on. It's a great directing job by someone who can always be counted on to give his audience a great show. Scenic and costume design is echt French in the first act, a little less so in the second, but we are given warning of this when "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" becomes "No, I Have No Regrets." I love that, stylistically, the settings are a throwback to 1940s theatrical style, perfectly in sync with the metaphors of the play. Lighting design by Chris Ostrom is another big plus, as is the sound design (and original music) by Joe Cerqua, who makes us hear the rhinos storming through the town. Hair/wig and make-up design by Michelle Hart is, as always, one of the wonders of any Asolo production.
I will admit that I have been looking forward to Rhinoceros since it was announced last spring because of my early experience with other French absurdist plays. I can only say that whatever I was hoping for has been more than met, and this is my favorite Asolo Repertory production in several seasons.
Rhinoceros, through April 14, 2018, at the Mertz Theater in the FSU Center, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota FL. For tickets and information, call the box office at 941-351-8000 or visit www.asolorep.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):